Part 5: The Sensory End of the Nervous System
30 years ago this year Job’s Body was published. This 8-part essay is a tribute to Deane Juhan’s unparalleled narrative of the body.
The Enigma of Changing Habits — You Have to Get Somatic
This essay offers an interdisciplinary synthesis between aspects of Deane Juhan’s Job’s Body and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. Linking physiology with presence revealed an unexpected answer to the enduring question, “Why is it so hard to change a habit?”
Part 5 of 8 (see part 1)
Cut off From Being
If you’ve ever heard yourself say “that’s just me” about a trait you would really rather transform, yet feel resigned to, or if you have the sense that your true nature is not apparent, consider the somatic practice presented by Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now.
Tolle concisely connects thought and embodiment, and has us reconsider how we conceive of “me.” He advocates becoming increasingly aware of the tendency to be perpetually engaged in thinking, and he describes how this awareness is proportionate to our degree of presence.
“You are cut off from Being as long as your mind takes up all your attention. When this happens — and it happens continuously for most people — you are not in your body. The mind absorbs all your consciousness and transforms it into mind stuff. You cannot stop thinking. Compulsive thinking has become a collective disease. Your whole sense of who you are is then derived from mind activity…To become conscious of Being, you need to reclaim consciousness from the mind” (Tolle, p.111).
Tolle explains that the effects of perpetual thought are insidious and deceitful, and that reclaiming consciousness from the thinking mind occurs by increasing the felt experience of your inner body energy.
“Let me ask you this. Can you be free of your mind whenever you want to? Have you found the “off” button?…Then the mind is using you. You are unconsciously identified with it, so you don’t even know that you are its slave. It’s almost as if you were possessed without knowing it, and so you take the possessing entity to be yourself” (Tolle pp.17–18).
One way to begin dis-identifying from the thinking mind, Tolle encourages, is to practice turning attention to the “space between the thoughts” and towards the inner energy body. Increasing awareness of the sensory end of your nervous system (elaborated upon below) can bring relief from the tyranny of the thinking mind, and wakes up to the physical experience of the ever-present energy in the body that Tolle refers to with the sublime phrase: “the life underneath your life circumstances” (Tolle pp.19, 62).
The Inner Energy Body
An antidote to the feeling of heaviness or any signs of prolonged tension is to develop the capacity to sustain focus on “inner energy body” described by Tolle, which you can begin by feeling the energy in your hands and feet. “Are they alive?” Tolle asks. Remember it is imperative to distinguish thinking the answer from experiencing the answer. Then, gradually increase the felt sense of your intrinsic aliveness throughout your whole body (Tolle p. 67).
Direct attention away from the drone of constant thinking and attune to the energy of aliveness: sustain attention with the breath, the senses, and/or recognition of the Now (for this process the works of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (1997) or Emilie Conrad (2007) are also recommended). Each are portals to the inner body energy and to presence (Tolle p. 125, 129).
I experience this focusing of awareness as a diffuse, rather than a pointed, focus. When I steep in the feeling of aliveness that is found betwixt and between my muscles, the sense of “me” progressively becomes the experience of an ever-present hum. At minimum the grip of my thinking mind dissipates and there is an increase in relaxed alertness. Frequently the felt sense of the barrier to action (Kepner, 1997) also dissolves, and the action often becomes effortless.
Through practice, as we experience greater facility in refocusing attention in this way, and as there is a gradual loosening of the attachment to “psychological time”, it seems there would be a corollary effect on the Golgis’ attachment to certain tension loads and the spindles’ familiar lengths. You can track this change in the felt sense of your body with the lightness that occurs when shifting attention back and forth between the present felt sense of aliveness (the life underneath your life circumstances) and your thoughts (ideas about your life circumstances).
Without a practice for cleansing the palate of perception, the quality of our felt experience (and therefore the settings of our muscles) is at the mercy of whatever lens we happen to be seeing through at the moment. Tolle notes that artists and scientists frequently experience their breakthroughs in moments of mental quietude and of this flow state.
“I would say that the simple reason why the majority of scientists are not creative is not because they don’t know how to think but because they don’t know how to stop thinking!” (Tolle, p. 24).
In contrast, when you have the option to shift attention to the felt sense of presence, you come in contact with the basis for all creativity — deep stillness — and you recognize yourself, as Tolle suggests, as “a bridge between the Unmanifested and the manifested,” between form and the Formless (pp. 121, 126).
In the process of formation of an action, check out from your own experience: where does movement originate, and what happens to the original stimulus? A good deal of movement does not involve the brain directly but occurs in a closed, unconscious, automated loop between stimulus (whether external or internal) and the spinal reflex arc. In which case the sensory input doesn’t even need to travel past the spine to come back with a motor response. Additionally, within the entire range of the sensory-motor loop, at each of the numerous points of the hand-off, there is ample opportunity to overlay interpretation onto each original stimulus.
“Once a stimulation passes beyond the sensory nerve ending that initially receives it, it bears no resemblance to its original quality. What was a physical distortion of tissue becomes a coded train of action potential impulses. As it continues through the afferent pathways, it can be inhibited, facilitated, rhythmically altered, or blocked at various stages. It has been transduced, and is no more like its origin than the current in a telephone wire is like the person talking at the other end” (Juhan p. 163).
The work of somatic psychotherapy includes intercepting our myriad automatic interpretations and returning to and sustaining presence with the original stimulus. We slow down and get curious about the sensations from the initial point of contact. This helps increase awareness of the programmed ways we make meaning of sensations to which the gamma motor system is ready with patterned responses.
“Sensory and motor activities are everywhere and at all times interpenetrating one another to create the homogeneity of conscious experience…It is difficult to imagine a stream that flows two directions at the same time, but this is just what the nervous system does. The failure to sufficiently appreciate this unity of seeming opposites leads us into separating too absolutely afferent from efferent, sensation from behavior, attitude form activity” (Juhan p. 162).
As noted earlier, our muscles are not insentient objects awaiting voluntary commands.
“We are aware of our muscles as workhorses, because we continually observe their effects; we are surprisingly unaware of them as sense organs, because the data they provide are handled almost exclusively by centers in the brain that are normally unconscious…Yet no sense contributes more to our conception of material reality” (Juhan p. 249).
Unless the aspect of our muscles that keeps us wedded to faithful patterns of movement is embraced — the sensory end of the sensory-motor system — the self of the body will be regarded abstractly and not be entirely accessible.
So we track the continual arising of form from the Formless; the sensations and the movements that arise, express, complete, and return to stillness. For a portal to the Now, Tolle says to direct attention to one of your senses, such as sounds. Notice what you hear. Then direct your attention to the silence from which the sounds arise (Tolle p. 135). This practice accentuates both the totality of our Being-ness — from which the otherwise endless associations to sensory information take place — as well as the unique individual processing of sensations which results in such divergent effects on our experiences that, as previously noted, for better or for worse, “every human individual…[becomes] to a large extent a species unto itself” (Juhan p. 230).
Next in Part 6: Liberation from Groundhog Day / Pre-Sense / Contact as a Principle of Change